Firm Wins Big in the Eastern Sierra

Shute Mihaly & Weinberger and the firm’s stalwart clients, the Save Round Valley Alliance (SRVA), won a major victory in the final days of 2007 when the Court of Appeal ruled that Inyo County was wrong to approve a sprawling suburban-style subdivision along Whitney Portal Road without considering whether there was a better place to put the development. This decision, from the Court’s usually-conservative Riverside branch, kept the landscape between Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney in its undeveloped state for at least a bit longer.

                                  

Ironically named the “Whitney Portal Preserve,” the development would have scraped out of the desert 27 lots for the construction of the sort of large houses sought by those who want the “rugged” western lifestyle without the hassles of actually living in the Eastern Sierra year-round.  While claiming to provide housing for residents of strapped Inyo County, the price tags on the project seemed aimed squarely at providing housing in the County for wealthy Angelenos.

 

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power already owns millions of acres in Inyo County. SRVA, whose members grew up in the County, own businesses there, and teach in its schools, was not enthusiastic about sending even more resources on the southward path that the Owens Valley’s water takes toward L.A.  The County should be encouraging development that actually benefitted its residents, the group thought. And SRVA has a vision of well-planned development that the “Preserve” does not fit into.  The towns of Inyo County are laid along Route 395, the north-south highway that tracks the eastern slope of the Sierra.  Each one—Bishop, Independence, Lone Pine, and Big Pine—is relatively compact, a small grid growing out evenly from the highway, with public land and ranches around its rim.  The “Preserve,” by contrast, would sit four undeveloped miles from Lone Pine, unconnected to any real community, and requiring a car ride to get to any sort of jobs or services. 

 

Key to SRVA’s opposition was the group’s knowledge that other places—pieces of land closer to established communities and farther from the route to Mt. Whitney—could accommodate this development.  CEQA requires public decisionmakers to consider such alternatives before approving projects, like the “Preserve,” that will damage the environment.  A city council or county board of supervisors must ask whether a proposed site is the best, least harmful, land for the proposed type of development.  In approving the project, though, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors simply asked whether the developer wanted to build his project in a different part of the County.  The answer, obviously, was no.  Despite SMW’s warnings to the County that it was falling short of CEQA’s mandate, the Board approved the project. 

 

On behalf of SRVA, the firm immediately sued to reverse the Board’s decision, claiming several deficiencies in the EIR in addition to the thin and narrow alternatives analysis. While the trial court found the County had done nothing wrong, the appellate court sided with SRVA, finding that the EIR’s analysis of alternatives violated CEQA and directing the County to prepare a new EIR with a thorough consideration of alternative sites for the project. The Court, moreover, published its decision, so its reasoning will be helpful to groups challenging shoddy EIRs in the future. 

 

Although another lawsuit is possible, actually taking advantage of the available alternatives, whether through a land purchase or an exchange, would meet all parties’ goals, by providing a better site for housing (or the means of acquiring one) while protecting the land in Mt. Whitney’s desert shadow.